One of the most significant international competitions, the Geneva International Music Competition is preparing to fire the starting gun for its 73rd edtition, dedicated to piano and clarinet. We meet Didier Schnorhk, the competition’s general secretary, who reveals the workings of his institution and tells us about the trials that await its entrants…

© Concours de Genève
Bachtrack: Next year, the Geneva International Music Competition will celebrate its 80th birthday. How do you explain such longevity in a landscape that has suffered patches of turbulence?

Didier Schnorhk: When it comes to culture projects, longevity is the most difficult thing to achieve. It requires you to have ambition at the same time as a certain humility: you need a strong project, but you also have to know how to anchor it in the community, creating a group of faithful supporters. From the outset, the Geneva Competition has been able to rely on significant partners: the region’s public bodies, its arts institutions (orchestra, conservatoire, opera house, broadcasters, etc) and numerous private supporters. Through the years, the critical question has been how to keep hold of those supporters and find new ones. Of course, the successes, the entrants who turned into big names are ways of making people faithful, but just as important is the ability to question oneself, to innovate and take calculated risks. We believe that this positive and reflective attitude, to build on tradition while welcoming innovation, is one of the Geneva Competition’s strength. To that, you have to add having competent financial management and strong institutional structures, where there’s good separation of roles and everyone knows what’s expected of them.

You had a record number of applicants this year, both for piano and for clarinet. How did the preselection stage proceed?

For several years, we’ve used video as a selection tool, which has the advantage of being open to everyone and which permits the preselecting panel a certain level of flexibility (you don’t gain anything by spending 20 minutes listening to a candidate who is clearly not at the required level). Of course, the large number of applications has made the whole exercise difficult, long and sometimes trying: the piano jury spent three whole days listening, judging, re-listening, deciding. We listen to all the works, at least partly, in an equitable fashion, unless it’s obvious that this person has no place in an international competition. Then, after a first round of voting, we listen again to the ones where the decision isn’t obvious, and we do another round of voting.

The atmosphere was both studious and relaxed, the voting process transparent and efficient. The jury members were agreeably surprised by the ease with which the vote could be concluded, with neither tension nor pointless arguments.

Sharon Kam, president of the 2018 jury for clarinet
© Maike Helbig
What trials await the contestants?

As usual, the Geneva Competition works in four stages (not including preselection): two recitals of 30 minutes for piano (25 for clarinet) and 45 minutes, a 60 minute semi-final and then a final with orchestra. This year, a chamber work will be required as of the semi-final. There some other specifics worth mentioning: the pianists’ first recital includes a mandatory new work, commissioned by the Competition from a Swiss composer; both pianists and clarinetists must include contemporary music in their free choice selections; the clarinetists must perform a contemporary concerto as well as a romantic one, a work that won the prize at our composition competition last year. All in all, it’s a very diverse programme, spanning classical and contemporary music, with some set works (a Beethoven sonata and some Debussy for the pianists, a Brahms sonata for the clarinetists, etc). The Geneva Competition wants to be a generalist one, open to all forms of music.

In his day, the pianist Aldo Ciccolini declared this about international competitions: “The greater your talent, the greater your chances of failure. Having a personality, these days, has almost become something to be ashamed of!” How would you answer him today?

I think times have changed. On the contrary, most of the big international competitions are doing their best to seek out complete and original artists, the ones that generate enthusiasm and a frisson of excitement. The classical music world needs real personalities more and more, sometimes ones who are a bit provocative, in the image of today’s world. In any case, that’s the message we’re giving to our jurys and the one that we’re trying to promote by the way we set the rules: we want fully engaged personalities.

Mami Hagiwara, first prize winner of the 2010 competition
© Bertrand Cottet
What future awaits the Competition’s winners? How will you help them as they start their careers?

This post-competition aspect is becoming increasingly a way for a competition to distinguish itself from the others. Young artists  now expect a competition to help them with the development of their professional career (which is not necessarily becoming an international soloist): it’s therefore of the highest importance to set in motion a personalised programme which takes into account the prizewinner’s hopes and wishes. In Geneva, we offer this kind of service, which lasts at least two years but often considerably longer. The programme includes many facets: concerts, advice, coaching, recordings, international tours, chamber music. For the last two years, we’ve put on a week’s professional workshop in the course of which the young winners are brought face to face with music professionals such as agents, promoters, media specialists, health professionals, lawyers and stage directors: the goal is to prepare them as effectively as possible for the life that awaits them and to put some tools into their toolbox.

The Competition isn’t solely focused on its candidates: you’ve designed it as an artistic event open to the public. What have you put in place to ensure that it gets seen?

A music competition is a cultural institution and therefore has to find its place in the city (which, generally, is the source of both its essential financal support and of its audience). In Generva, we offer a variety of media activity and teaching projects aimed at young people: music schools and secondary schools as well as the students from the University or the Haute Ecole de Musique. For the youngest, the matter at hand is to awaken them to the idea of active listening and coming to a judgement: the preparation sessions and meetings allow them to award a Youth Prize. For university-level students or professionals, we have created a project with a particular focus on the way that music is filmed today: a seminar at the university, meetings with filmmakers and professional workshops will give students the chance to offer a project making a documentary about the competition. They will also have the change to win a special prize: the Students’ Prize.

The Competition’s disciplines change every year. After piano and clarinet, what’s going to be the programme of the next editions: 2019, 2020 and so on?

In 2019, the Competition will be firmly lodged in the contemporary world, with a composition competition (with a jury led by Kaija Saariaho) and a percussion competition (with Philippe Spiesser as president). The composition competition will be based around a work for oboe and ensemble, and the percussion competition will be open to all contemporary practice, including electronics and video.

In 2020, we will return to two more classical disciplines: cello and oboe. But the oboe candidates will then be required to perform the piece that won the previous year’s composition prize; that’s how the Competition stays faithful to its principles, the mix of tradition and innovation which is its greated strength.


 Translated from French by David Karlin

This article was sponsored by the Geneva International Music Competition.